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The French 9/11

PARIS – “France’s 9/11.” In the immediate aftermath of the massacre at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the comparison with Al Qaeda’s 2001 attack on the United States has taken hold across France. Indeed, the January 7 attack was the most murderous France has known since the end of the Algerian War in 1962. But how accurate is the analogy?

At first blush, the comparison seems artificial and far-fetched. Twelve people died in Paris, whereas nearly 3,000 were killed in the attacks on New York and Washington, DC. The attackers used Kalashnikovs, not hijacked planes. And, unlike the 9/11 attackers, they were all citizens of the country they were attacking. That is why the attack in Paris 2015 looks more like a combination of two other attacks: the London Underground bombing in 2005 (the terrorists were all national citizens) and the plot executed in Mumbai in 2008 (the terrorists used small arms and targeted people individually).

Yet, despite the major differences, the attacks in Paris and in New York share the same essence. Both cities incarnate a similar universal dream. Both are metaphors for light and freedom. Both belong to the world, not only to their respective countries.

Moreover, in both cases, the targets chosen by the terrorists were highly symbolic. In New York, the Twin Towers embodied capitalist ambition and achievement. In Paris, Charlie Hebdo has given form to the spirit of democratic freedom: the ability to write, draw, and publish anything – even extreme (and at times vulgar) provocations. There is a strong sense in Paris, as there was in New York, that the real target was Western civilization itself.